On enlightened self-interest
Thank you for the thought provoking philosophical piece [below]. In responding to it I shall first analyze my own act of responding and try to understand myself and explain to others what is it that motivates me to do so and through that to formulate my own concept regarding the phenomenon of enlightened self interest (ESI). I am aware of the danger of the circuitous logic inherent in such an attempt . Still I am willing to try at the risk of perhaps sounding less than convincing.
Though I never met you, I am an admirer and have been reading your various postings. So, by responding to your call for comments on what you wrote I am paying myself a certain complement by putting myself in the same class of committed Palestinian activists and involved intellectuals. Perhaps I am also attracted by the promise you made of posting responses to your piece. After all, such posting serves as a form of self promotion to circles of better-informed academicians involved in seeking peace and justice for Palestinians, a group that I would probably have joined myself had I not gotten preoccupied by my medical career. In both of these aspects there is a certain gain for me, which I will try to discount from the balance of my account as I tally up credit to myself against debt I owe to humanity at large as exemplified by all the ‘selfless’ figures you mention and as embodied by you in your ‘selfless’ acts.
This brings me to my statement of principle: There is no such thing as a selfless act. That is why it is better to stay with your term of ‘enlightened self interest’. I assume my statement is not news to anyone steeped in philosophy, which I am not. I am making this statement based on my analysis of my own actions throughout my over half a century of adult life. I wish at this early point in my rambling-on to make the cautionary disclaimer that I speak of my own career and experience and mean what I say to reflect on no one else.
So first let me say a few words about myself: I was born in 1937 In Arrabeh Village in the
As subsistence olive farmers my family sacrificed much to put me through the
I have always enjoyed penning down my thoughts. But, alas, I became a physician. With the mounting demands on my time, I found an easy-out; I shifted to recording my ‘compositions’, my soul-searching diatribes, and my confessions, on audiotapes that I stored away never to hear again. The act of facing myself across the page or vocally, not the content, had the therapeutic effect I sought in my many hours of need. The above brief biography encapsulates what I have selected out of the massive amount of my written and audio-memoirs for publication by Pluto Press of London under the title “A Doctor in Galilee, the Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel” due out on the market this June. As I sat down to sift through the accumulated records of my life I found it a daunting exercisein self-reinterpretation. Some of the sensitive recorded episodes of soul searching and self-questioning were emotionally devastating to listen to. Especially the audiotapes captured not only the words spoken, but also my mood and emotions. In retrospect, it is clear that much of the material would be highly charged, for it was when I sought to relieve myself of mental anguish that I turned to this escape rout. On occasion, the narrator on those tapes sounded so downcast, defeated and tormented that he would mumble under his breath; he would recoil, dim-out and hide behind his inaudible speech. I could hardly make out the words or guess at the content. Had it been on videotape, the body language would have been something to behold.
Now I shall return to our point, the meaning of ESI and why do we do what we do taking your own cue of “looking inward to our own motivation”. As I have stated already, to me there is no such thing as self-sacrifice but only self-interest with the endless range of qualifications from 'evil' to various degrees of 'enlightenment'. I happen to know personally a few of the names you list in your “hesitant meditations” as those “I think of” in connection with selfless acts and exemplary lives of sacrifice for others. I find it hard to exempt any of them from the applicability of my relativist scale of self-interest, with the exception perhaps of Jesus and Rachel Corrie whose premeditated crucifixion sanctifies their memory beyond my iconoclastic thoughts.
Leaving others alone for the moment I shall return to my own experience and convictions as displayed in the above described book of memoirs. In listening for the first time to my own audio-memoirs that I had kept over some thirty five years of professional life as a rural solo GP and a public health practitioner, I kept asking myself repeatedly why did I do what I did when I had lucrative alternative options at Harvard and in
“It was difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of turning our backs on my promising medical career in the US, and on the paradise of Didi’s native state of Hawaii, where we had for a time considered settling. But head back to the
‘To carry loads of grass from the fields.’
‘But you own no cattle! What do you need the grass for?’
‘To feed my donkey, of course!’
That is how it would have been for me to have settled and practiced medicine in
This is a clear case of self-interest. I needed to keep my psychological balance, to keep a grip on my sanity. I would have gone crazy practicing a profession that my family and community had drummed into my head in the first place outside of that same community. And I was lucky to have realized that before I got entrapped in the quagmire of Arrabeh’s simpleton's analogy.
On another occasion I face up to the same quandary on tape by admitting that I wanted to be “a big fish in a small pond,” that it would have been too strenuous a struggle to gain prominence through the Harvard public health/nutrition research team where I was offered a position. In Arrabeh I was prominent by definition, without even trying. Again and again I find myself admitting to myself on tape that I had returned to Arrabeh because of my vanity:
“During that decade [1960-70] I had obtained degrees in medicine and public health from
True, the decision meant spending many sleepless nights and fighting an uphill struggle against an airtight system of neglect and discrimination by ‘my’ government and the Zionist majority in
When I reached the clear conclusion that there is little to be gained by working from within the system, I devised a scheme that brought me quickly to the forefront of the nascent civil society movement in the Palestinian community in
Again and again the theme of self-aggrandizement pops up on those tapes: In the summer of 1990, as the first gulf war was brewing, my family and I were vacationing in
“We mull over our decision to return to our home in
‘Still, why should sane people like us, sitting in their swimming shorts here at water’s edge in Hawaii, turn away from the easy choice of continuing their vacation in paradise a while longer? Why go back to the eye of the storm?’ Didi wonders.
‘I try to tell myself that it is not sheer obstinacy or romantic attachment that is at the base of my insistence to go back home to
Clearly this is a case of self-aggrandizement. But despite my recognizing it as such in due time, we still did go back to
To close off this rambling bit of self flagellation, I will state for the last time that for me, on balance, there is no such thing as self-sacrifice and that we all are the beneficiaries of the self-interest component of our ‘acts of valor’ made more palatable by the self-serving qualifier ‘enlightened’. I even can sense the derivation of some pleasure from this admission itself, and from stating what I have just stated, and so on ad-infinitum.
Circuitous and self-serving, you say? Yes, I agree!
Mazin Qumsiyeh’s piece to which the above is a response:
On enlightened self-interest
Waking up into a communal and peace farm in Luck,
We ask ourselves many questions as we struggle through this short life of ours. What is the nature of activism? Why do we do what we do? How much self-sacrifice are we really willing to take? What do those of us feel after lost jobs, after time in jail, after being beaten and gassed by Israeli soldiers, or after all of the above? How does one distinguish between selfishness and enlightened self-interest? Is activism for peace and justice the ultimate love of humanity or the triumph of optimism over experience? Is activism and living live simply the ultimate love of mother nature or of God? The following rambling thoughts do not intend to give answers but hopefully give us time to reflect and think (please send my your comments and I will post and share them).
Several years ago a prominent person in the Palestinian right to return movement repeatedly criticized Prof. Edward Said (then at
My background is in evolutionary biology including genetic and behavioral biology. It would not be necessary for the sake of this discussion to review the exhaustive literature on evolution of human behaviors that relates to group and individual behavior. Scientific explanations can certainly give us certain insights but they are limited. We do know that each individual human being has certain basic needs that are easily recognized: water, food, shelter, safety, social interactions, and sex. In many parts of the world with limited technological development, people still have to focus on their day to day survival: scavenging for food, finding a shelter etc. In technologically advanced societies, we still find such people represented among our ranks as the homeless in cities around Europe and
Humans unlike other mammals also have concepts of self-sacrifice, collective work, and work for the common good that emanate directly from a social society. Other social animal societies (ants, bees, elephants) do show many of the features we recognize in such groupings. But humans have complex communication systems and as far as we know the only species that ponders its existence, thinks of life after death and has other concepts that we cannot observe in other life forms. We do find many animals that exhibit self-sacrificial behaviors from losing their life to feed and protect their young to domesticated dogs that jump into dangerous situations to save their human companions. But why has human societies developed such highly amazing forms of complex behaviors that involve things like standing in front of a bulldozer that aims to demolish a house of someone totally unrelated to you (Rachel Corrie)? Such behaviors call for deeper explanations (most personal) that are very hard to analyze by objective and rational thought processes.
Could one argue that Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi were driven by a pure form of self-sacrifice and altruism or by what we may term as enlightened self-interest? Are these two things distinguishable? The diaries of Mother Teresa which she did not want published disturbed many of her supporters who were shocked to learn that throughout a life time of doing good for others, she had doubts about so many things (even the existence of God). Yet, this simple women I think epitomizes the love of the poor more than we can imagine. That love is the issue that we should start with when discussing sacrifice and enlightened self-interest.
Love between a child and a parent involve significant sacrifices and maybe the easiest to understand in linking biology (genetic relationship), learned behaviors, and perhaps much more. In ancient
The role of religion and morality cannot be underestimated. I think of how people like Clarence Jordan was raised as a privileged white man in the segregated south of the 1940s and 1950s and opposed wars (all wars including WWII and Vietnam). Learning ancient languages and learning what Jesus really taught transformed him. His faith led him to challenge the comfortable clergy in the south and then move on to establish Koinonia farms in
We can safely state as Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." But Mead cannot tell us why these people became committee or thoughtful. What makes a Kathy Kelly or a Clarence Jordan?
We can safely say indeed that human societies evolved in spite of sometimes incredible odds precisely because of such thoughtful committed (I would add loving) people. A good example of such a historical study is Howard Zinn's "A people history of the
Ofcourse many individuals may think they are engaged in ESI when they are not (or even when they are even racist or bigots). Members of many artificial grouping (including extended family, co-religionists, nation, people who think alike) have taken up arms against "others" that by definition did not belong to the self-defined grouping. These are actually the primary cause of wars and conflicts around the world. And as any independent and rational observer knows, there are no winners in wars only losers.
We can explain ESI in terms of nagging conscience, morality, religion, logic, psychological hedonism, or any combination thereof but we cannot deny its existence and widespread impact on human history. For example, I talked to people who think of Jesus as a Son of God, those who think of him as a prophet of God, and those who don't believe in God and all have agreed that Jesus lived on earth and did give of himself for humanity even as they differ on what his message was (would it not be good to acknowledge the example he provided?) or that it had a huge impact on human history.
We can cite genetic and behavioral studies to show that self-sacrifice for the group is a trait that does exist and evolve in mammalian societies. My son actually did a simulation via computer programming with random mutations and noted that group behaviors evolved that included altruism; It evolved without being programmed or encouraged so clearly groups that show these behaviors benefit. We can cite religious reasons for doing good to others even at the expense of our material well being (this is also enlightened self-interest as we think of ourselves as vessels and tools of God). We can cite moral or other reasons for helping others even if we are not religious (agnostic or atheist) such as a livable human and humane society. We can each come up with many ways of looking at these issues but again I think it is something deeply personal and that is where it must come from.
But we need not look beyond our own personal experiences to find who the people we admire are. If you take a moment to think of the person you personally knew/met that you most admire (whether they are still alive or dead). If you think what qualities made you admire this person. If you then think of what motivates that person. I think these are things that provide the best and most meaningful personal lessons for each of us. For me it was an uncle who was the first Zoologist in
The English language has limitations in describing the source of these desires that add to positive energy in the world. They are described differently by different people or even by the same person in different stages of understanding. They are deeply personal. Perhaps those who have the best skill to describe these emotions and desires are poets and we should read them more. My own favorite poet is Kahlil Gibran. For me his meditation on love speak directly to the issues at hand.
On Love, from The PROPHET, by Kahlil Gibran
When love beckons to you follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather,
"I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.
Send your comments and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org